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Miller, Jonathan (1934)

Director, Producer, Writer, Presenter

Main image of Miller, Jonathan (1934)

Jonathan Miller's entry in Who's Who is doomed to scratch at the surface. As 'stage director, writer and broadcaster' he has enjoyed an extraordinarily busy career. It's tempting to suggest other descriptions - intellectual, humanist, psychologist, atheist, physician, comedian, artist, socialist - but perhaps time has taught us not to pigeonhole him so readily.

Where his career has intersected with the screen Miller has given full expression to this range. What better evidence than the night of 14 November 1965, when his adaptation of Plato's 'Symposium' aired on BBC1 just as he was taping an edition of Call My Bluff (1965-88) for BBC2? But his polymath facility can also get up people's noses.

Jonathan Wolfe Miller was born in London on 21 July 1934. His early career was a negotiation between revue and study, and he was already known to listeners of BBC radio's Under Twenty Parade before he went to Cambridge in 1953. As part of Cambridge's Footlights revue, he was favourably compared to Danny Kaye; his television debut soon followed, on ATV's Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV, 1955-74) in 1955.

Miller's sketch writing appealed to the producers of the Tonight programme (BBC, 1957-65), who hired him as jester to the magazine's original on-screen team. Bookings were regular and became a glorified hobby, though his postgraduate work at University College Hospital remained his primary concern. Indeed, his initial commitment to appear in the landmark satirical revue Beyond the Fringe (1960), alongside Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, was viewed as nothing more than a short holiday in Edinburgh. The show transferred to London and then Broadway.

"My moral fibre began to rot under audience approval," he later said, believing he had failed his father by leaving medicine. Miller continues to view the arts as intellectually less valuable and, were it not for Beyond the Fringe, he would have remained a doctor. "I feel like a lapsed Catholic. Every time I pass a hospital, there's tremendous agony."

The first of many critical backlashes came in 1964, when Miller took over as editor of arts flagship Monitor (BBCTV, 1959-65). This transfer of power from Huw Wheldon marked a seismic shift away from the programme's "sequence of literary and artistic big game," as Miller later described it. Less familiar subjects and unorthodox shooting styles drove many viewers away.

Miller went on to make five films for the BBC, and for the first time the director experimented with period shifting in order to tease out unexpected associations. Two entries for Sunday Night (1965-66) depicted Leo McKern as Socrates, setting the Plato dialogues at a reunion of students in the grounds of their old school ('The Drinking Party', BBC, tx. 14/11/1965) and a nameless 20th century gaol ('The Death of Socrates', BBC, tx. 3/7/1966). A third, 'Mr Sludge - The Medium' (tx. 6/2/1966), tapped into the Victorian obsession with spiritualism but was poorly received.

An exploration of the "curious values of perception", Alice in Wonderland aired to wide acclaim on Boxing Day 1966. With its echoes of Roger Fenton's photography, the dramatisation cemented a fruitful working relationship with film cameraman Dick Bush. They collaborated again on the spare, psychological horror of 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' (Omnibus, BBC, tx. 7/5/1968), where Miller's newfound interest in behavioural tics as a means to bring truth to a performance took full flight in Michael Hordern.

With his BBC contract over, Miller returned to the stage in 1967 and to medicine in 1970, and took a further detour into opera from 1974. Take a Girl Like You (1970) was his "one brush with the majors", a film adaptation of Kingsley Amis's novel frustrated by a producer who "sat on its manufacture at almost every stage." The following decade was punctuated with occasional television commissions, his massive medical/philosophical history The Body in Question (BBC, 1978-79) marking his decisive return.

In April 1979, he replaced Cedric Messina as producer of the (ultimately) all-encompassing BBC Television Shakespeare, which monopolised his time for the next two years. BBC management and overseas buyers concerned about the suitability of a man with "reputations for the avant-garde" (as an internal memo had it) were soon put at ease, as the contract happily coincided with Miller's renewed interested in original period settings. Of those he directed, 'The Taming of the Shrew' (tx. 23/10/1980) was an intriguing departure from the 'rompishness' characteristic of earlier productions.

He exited television again in 1983 with a MacTaggart Lecture in which he sharply attacked the medium's habitual bastardising of literary classics. A return to medicine took him to Canada (where people are, he said, "more hospitable to renegades"), taking the post of visiting professor of neurology at McMasters. It proved shortlived, a reminder to Miller that he had been out of the profession for too long. He saw out the decade with international opera commissions, some of them relayed by television, including a lively take on Mozart's Candide co-devised with John Wells (BBC, tx. 1/10/1988). As well as being its enfant terrible, Miller is an evangeliser of opera, always willing to improve viewers' understanding in series like Staging an Opera (Channel 4, 1983) and Jonathan Miller's Opera Works (BBC, 1997).

His work in television documentary is now vanishingly rare. In his own estimation, he is "no longer a figure with any charisma for the BBC." ("I'm interested in the history of ideas and you can't do that on television.") A Brief History of Disbelief (BBC, 2004) and its sister show The Atheism Tapes offered some respite, although extended series on genetics and Kafka in America have both been turned down.

Miller is happy to suffer the consequences of being seen as a malcontent. Private Eye's teasing animosity towards this "self-important man of learning" has been there since the magazine's earliest days, while Spitting Image (Central/ITV, 1984-96) cast him as an anteater, descending into an impenetrable, self-satisfied discussion with fellow public intellectual Bernard Levin. Dismissing this as symptomatic of a view that "knowing more than one thing is boastfulness", Miller instead prefers to view himself as someone who belongs to a vanished world of 'civilised curiosity'.

Ian Greaves

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Alice in Wonderland (1966)Alice in Wonderland (1966)

Jonathan Miller's startlingly imaginative version of Lewis Carroll's fantasy

Thumbnail image of All's Well That Ends Well (1981)All's Well That Ends Well (1981)

Visually striking BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

Thumbnail image of Henry VI Part II (1983)Henry VI Part II (1983)

As Henry's grip on power weakens, the Wars of the Roses begin in earnest

Thumbnail image of Merchant of Venice, The (1974)Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Jonathan Miller's production starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright

Thumbnail image of On the Margin (1966)On the Margin (1966)

Alan Bennett's first and only out-and-out comedy series

Thumbnail image of Othello (1981)Othello (1981)

Controversial BBC adaptation with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins

Thumbnail image of Taming of the Shrew, The (1980)Taming of the Shrew, The (1980)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation, starring John Cleese

Thumbnail image of This Week 416: Satire Boom, The (1963)This Week 416: Satire Boom, The (1963)

A report on early 1960s satire, interviewing many key participants

Thumbnail image of Timon of Athens (1981)Timon of Athens (1981)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

Thumbnail image of Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)

Jonathan Miller's truly creepy version of M.R. James' ghost story

Related collections

Thumbnail image of BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)

Monumentally ambitious small-screen adaptations of all 37 plays

Thumbnail image of Shakespeare on TelevisionShakespeare on Television

Seven decades of the Bard on the box

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Bennett, Alan (1934-)Bennett, Alan (1934-)

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Thumbnail image of Cook, Peter (1937-1995)Cook, Peter (1937-1995)

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